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A Drinker’s Guide to British Columbia

A Drinker’s Guide to British Columbia

Driving across the highways of western Canada, which afford majestic views of sea and sky, the same phrase appears again and again on the region’s blue-and-white license plates: “Beautiful British Columbia.” It’s an apt description.

Covering nearly 365,000 square miles of old-growth temperate rainforests, storm-smashed seaboards and desert grasslands that stretch between the Pacific Ocean and the Canadian Rockies, the dramatic landscapes of Canada’s westernmost province are a headlining draw.

But for lovers of wine, craft spirits and craft beer, British Columbia holds another appeal entirely. An underappreciated destination for drinkers, the province offers terroir that, in recent years, has translated to a heady craft drinks scene.

Thanks to the adoption of a 2013 government policy, small-batch producers need to use province-grown agricultural products like grapes, barley and wheat to qualify as “craft.” This translates to drinks that are direct expressions of B.C. land, including complex old-vine wines; beers brewed with golden B.C. grain and local spirits infused with forest and ocean botanicals.

So, how best to sip your way through three of British Columbia’s best drinks-producing regions? We queried local experts and drinks industry professionals for their ideas. Pro tip: Many small-production B.C. drinks products are hard to find outside the province, so leave room in your suitcase to bring some home.

Image Courtesy of Victoria Distillers


This bustling, glittering city is the gateway to B.C. It’s known for many things: close proximity to world-class skiing and hiking, a Michelin-recognized culinary scene and, most critically for the purposes of this guide, top-notch drinking that has a deep sense of place.

“B.C.’s accessibility to some amazing ingredients makes it really unique,” says local spirits expert and award-winning bartender Alex Black. Strict B.C. liquor laws—which stipulate 50,000-liter production limits and high markups for distillers interested in placing products on government-run liquor store shelves—have created a collaborative, community-driven distilling and brewing scene.

“I like to say the only thing crazier than opening a restaurant is opening a distillery,” says Black. “There are so many barriers to profitability, so the people who do it do it out of passion.”

Beer and Cider

For a taste of that passion, Black recommends diving into the city’s craft brewing landscape, which comprises more than 40 different establishments.

“We got the Pacific Northwest beer boom as well,” he says.

He suggests beginning at Strange Fellows in East Vancouver (affectionately known as Yeast Vancouver for its notable suds) and snapping up a pint of its lauded Talisman Pale Ale. From there, check out Faculty Brewing Co., an under-the-radar spot near the Science World Museum. For a wide range of constantly-rotating local beers on tap in one place, head to Alibi Room. You also can’t go wrong walking around the centrally-located Brewery Creek area, a historic urban brewery district.

Along with beer, cider has a solid foothold in Vancouver. “I love everything that comes out of Windfall Cider,” Black says of the urban cidery located in North Vancouver, where B.C. apples meet Old World technique. One interesting offering is the Lost & Found cider, made from fallen apples found in orchards and backyards around the city.

Spirits and Cocktails

For spirits, take a day trip to nearby Bowen Island to visit Copper Spirit Distillery, which offers vodka, gin and Canadian rye whiskey. “I really love what they’re doing with local B.C. grains,” says Black.

Going hand-in-hand with the growing distilling scene, Vancouver is a craft cocktail town, with numerous bars featured on best-of national and international lists. Saunter up to the bar for cocktails developed by Black himself at Laowai and Bagheera, two elegant cocktail bars designed as secretive speakeasies and lounges. Other must-trys are the Italian-inspired Uva Wine & Cocktails Bar, the apothecary-themed Keefer Bar and BOTANIST, where cocktails like the Treebeard use fir gin and birch sap to evoke B.C.’s great outdoors.

Where to Stay in Vancouver

Modern design meets nature at The DOUGLAS, ideally located close to downtown. Urbanites will love the retro, motor inn aesthetic of the stylish Burrard Hotel, and the Gastown-adjacent Skwachàys Lodge showcases Indigenous art.

The Burrard
Image Courtesy of Martin Tessler / The Burrard

Okanagan Valley

“Some of the best wines I’ve ever had have been from the Okanagan,” Black says of B.C.’s premier wine region. It’s just a 45-minute flight or five-hour drive east of Vancouver, so you won’t have to go far. (If you’re driving, leave time for a quick stop-over in the nearby city of Port Moody to visit its six-taproom Brewers Row.)

Centered around a series of spindly lakes stretching north to south—the most notable being the 84-mile-long Okanagan Lake—the valley’s rocky cliffs and undulating hills convey rolling waves of vineyards, orchards and fields down to lakefront towns. With over 180 wineries, the Okanagan is home to 86% of B.C.’s vineyard acreage.

Along the valley’s 155-mile length, eleven official sub-regions make use of distinct sediments, soil types and microclimates, as well as glorious days of sunshine and cool nights. A wide range of grapes are grown here—more than 80 different varietals, from heavy hitters like Chardonnay to rare specimens like Leon Millot.

“There is no one superstar grape here,” says Emily Walker, the wine director of Naramata Inn, which specializes in hyper-local, seasonal cuisine. Although winemaking in the area goes back to the 1850s, the modern winemaking scene is still emerging. Today, it’s grounded in organic, low-intervention and biodynamic production. “We’re so young and there are so many exciting things happening.”


Start a visit to one of the valley’s best-known wineries, Mission Hill Family Estate. In stately, ultra-modern buildings of Indiana limestone, perched high on a hilltop, guests can sip wines sourced from vineyards across the valley at Canada’s only five-time WineAlign National Wine Awards Winery of the Year winner.

From there, try some of Walker’s favorites like Echo Bay Vineyard in Okanagan Falls for “really pure, beautiful” Bordeaux blends; single-vineyard Riesling from vines planted in 1927 at Tantalus near Kelowna; and Fox and Archer on the scenic Naramata Bench for Pinot Noir and Malbec. Situated close to the Naramata Inn, the Bench is one of the best spots for a day of wine tasting, with a hop-on, hop-off wine trolley.

Another must-visit spot is the District Wine Village near Oliver. Taste your way through 12 different wineries, as well as breweries and distilleries, in each establishment’s Scandinavian-inspired cabin tasting room.

Among them is Nk’Mip Cellars, North America’s first Indigenous-owned winery, where guests can sample wines from the arid, desert-like southern Okanagan. (In Vancouver, you can try their wines paired with First Nations fare like bannock and game sausages at Salmon n’ Bannock.) It’s also worth hopping over to the neighboring Thompson and Similakeen Valleys for wineries like Orofino Winery, which specializes in low-intervention Riesling and Gamay.

Beer and Cider

Although wine is the Okanagan’s bread and butter, apple and pear orchards abound here and are the basis for many exceptional ciders. Outfits like Cambium, Nomad and Dominion produce crisp offerings in a variety of styles, from dry to barrel-aged, made with heirloom apples, pears, Haskap berries and more.

If beer is on your mind, head to the town of Penticton. Set between two lakes, Penticton is a must-visit for beer lovers, with eight different craft breweries and an annual Okanagan Fest of Ale craft beer festival, which has been happening since 1996. Walker also recommends heading out of town to the nearby, family-run Abandoned Rail Brewing on the Naramata Bench for its European-inspired brews like pilsners and Bavarian lagers.

Where to Stay

Stay in central Kelowna for access to all parts of the Okanagan at the lakefront Delta Hotels Grand Okanagan Resort. Planning a dinner at the Restaurant at Naramata Inn? No need to drive back to your hotel after. Simply book a stay at one of the 12 Mission-style rooms in this 114-year-old inn, which comes complete with morning breakfast.

Strange Fellows Brewing
Image Courtesy of Strange Fellows Brewing

Vancouver Island

Kelp gin and stout beers, honey-based rum and cool coastal wines await drinkers on the 285-mile-long Vancouver Island. Most visitors make the ferry trip from the city of Vancouver for the island’s picture-perfect, moody Pacific Northwest landscapes, wintertime storm-watching, cold water surfing and island-grown food scene. All that exceptional fare, from seafood to foraged goods, is a delightful foil for the island’s wineries, breweries, cideries and distilleries.

Although the island has around 30 wineries—most centered in the Cowichan Valley—local craft spirits from the 19-odd distilleries are perhaps the best expression of local terroir. Distillers use island-grown or sea-and-forest-foraged ingredients to evoke the land’s storm-battered coastline and temperate rainforests.

“People take big pride in consuming things from the island,” says Hailey Pasemko, bar manager at Tofino hotspot Wolf in the Fog. “That mentality has been around for a while.”

Spirits and Cocktails

Pasemko is partial to the distilleries along the Vancouver Island Spirit Path. Starting in southern Victoria, stop in at Victoria Distillers for their trademark color-changing Empress 1908 gin. In nearby Langford, you’ll find a favorite of both Alex Black’s and Pasemko’s: Sheringham Distillery, one of the island’s top distilleries, which is known for its winged kelp-based, World Gin Awards-winning Seaside Gin. Heading north out of Victoria to Courtenay, Pasemko also recommends stopping at Wayward Distillery, which uses a base of sustainably-sourced honey in its rums, gins and liqueurs.

Several other must-visit distilleries include Arbutus Distillery in Nanaimo, which is known for its woodsy, earth-inspired spirits, liqueurs and amari. A standout is the Forest Dweller gin, which is infused with foraged spruce tips, grand fir and pine. At Shelter Point Distillery, farm-grown barley is used to produce a smooth, single-malt whiskey.

Heading to the wild West Coast towns of Ucluelet and Tofino, sample vodka made with Barkley Sound wild yeast and hand-harvested forest botanicals at Pacific Rim Distilling. Lastly, pop into Pasemko’s stomping grounds, the Wolf in the Fog, to try island-made spirits in both classic and signature cocktails.

Beer and Cider

With over 40 island craft breweries from which to choose, craft beer fans will also find plenty to slake their thirst. Two favorites of Pasemko’s are Gladstone Brewing in Courtenay, which offers IPAs and European-style lagers, and Victoria’s first brew pub, Spinnakers. For cider-heads, Pasemko recommends popping in at Salt Spring Wild Cider on Salt Spring Island (a quick day trip from the main island) for offerings made with wild-grown heritage apples and pears.

If you’re looking for a post-surf session brew in Ucluelet or Tofino, head to Ucluelet Brewing Company for church-made craft beer (literally, the brewery and bar are in a converted church) or sample a sea kelp stout from Tofino Brewing.

Where to Stay on Vancouver Island

In Victoria, book a room in the sumptuous Fairmont Empress by the downtown waterfront. In Tofino, stay steps from Cox Bay’s half-moon beach and surf waves at Long Beach Lodge or cozy up at the luxe Wickaninnish Inn, which provides guests with a warming (and complimentary) glass of Port upon arrival. In Ucluelet, watch whales from your ocean-view hot tub at the Japanese-Scandinavian Nami Project.

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